Dissertation writing

If you’re in third or fourth year, you’ve probably started to think (or worry!) about your dissertation. Having to write your own research project is a scary thought! Having just completed my own history dissertation, I’ve learned a lot about the process. The dissertation marking criteria varies a lot depending on which school you are studying. For example, a dissertation written for the school of humanities will look significantly different from one written for school of social sciences. Having said that, here are some tips that can be applied to most dissertations.


  1. Pick a topic that you love.
  • Picking a subject that you enjoy might seem pretty obvious. Since you’ll be working on your dissertation over several months, take the time to think of a topic that you are passionate about, as this will make the whole process more enjoyable.
  • It may be tempting to pick a subject because you think that it’ll be easier. But, if you aren’t enthusiastic about the topic, its more than likely that you will lose motivation. Make sure that your project is something that you can engage with. Pick a topic you are really interested in to keep you motivated throughout.


2. Make yourself a schedule.

  • Before you start writing your dissertation, you need to have a rough idea of when your project is due. Make a list of important dates to keep yourself on track.
  • Set yourself personal deadlines, and have an idea of what you would like to achieve at a certain point. If you’re dissertation is split into 5 sections, an introduction, 3 chapters and a conclusion, personal deadlines can help you to split your time evenly between these areas. This will help you falling into the trap of spending months on the first half of your dissertation, and leaving only a couple of weeks to finish your argument and conclude.
  • Make sure that you factor time in for proof reading, printing and binding.


3. Understand that your research question will change throughout.

  • It’s impossible to pin down exactly what your dissertation will argue at the very beginning when you first start to write it. This is when a ‘working title’ comes in handy, as it gives you a rough idea of what you’re researching, without nailing down your key argument. Throughout your writing process, your arguments will evolve and develop as you come across key sources and information.
  • In my experience, the dissertation title that I proposed in June was very different in comparison to my final question.


4. Write your introduction last.

  • Following from the previous point, at the beginning of your dissertation, you have no idea what information you are actually going to find. This makes it almost impossible to clearly set out what you’re going to say in your introduction, when even you don’t know what you are going to come across and therefore have no idea what you are introducing!
  • Once you’ve written your first draft of your dissertation, you’ll have a good idea of you’re key arguments and the body of your research. This makes it easier, as at this point you know exactly what you are introducing, and the arguments that your dissertation will go on to make.


5. Get feedback!

  • Go and see your supervisor regularly to ensure that you are on the right track. While your supervisor can’t tell you what to do, they can point you in the right direction and let you know if your work is relevant.
  • Generally, your adviser will mark a plan or a rough outline of what you plan to say in your dissertation. Use this feedback!


6. Reference regularly!

  • Referencing is a huge part of a humanities dissertation, as engaging with current historiography and analysing primary sources allows for a more developed argument.
  • Try to keep on top of your referencing throughout. This may be a pain, but it’ll save time in the long run!
  • With internet sources and online libraries such as the Jstor, its easy to forget where you sourced your information.
  • By taking careful notes of references, you won’t need to spend hours trying to find source details to add to your bibliography.


7. Give yourself breaks.

  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s important to let your brain rest.
  • Make sure you allow for relaxation in your dissertation schedule.
  • I personally always gave myself the weekend off, as I saw it as an opportunity to unwind and recharge! You don’t want to burn yourself out.
  • The saying “you cant pour from an empty cup” comes to mind here.


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